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York County Soldiers: Sgt. John Lau

Sgt. John Lau, Company I, 209th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. Photograph by Dr. Thomas M. Mingus

The old Franklin Union Church in rural Franklin Township, York County, Pennsylvania is a fascinating place for the modern Civil War buff to visit. The red brick church was constructed in 1847 and is located at 151 Clearview Road just off the old Harrisburg Pike (and not far from the modern U.S. Route 15 highway). It is a reminder of York County’s days gone by. Still quite active as a thriving country church (St. John’s Franklin Lutheran), the church is along one of the routes taken by Wade Hampton’s Confederate cavalry on the very early morning of July 2, 1863 en route to participating in the battles of Hunterstown and Gettysburg.
The church’s well maintained graveyard contains an unusually high percentage of Civil War veterans, more more per capita than most York County cemeteries that I have explored. On a beautiful autumn day this past September, my son Tom took dozens of photographs of the headstones of the Union army veterans (I don’t know of any former Confederates in this particular cemetery).
Among the array of marble stones is this one of Sgt. John Lau. Etched with an image of the flag he fought under, Lau was among the older men in his company of the 209th Pennsylvania, which was among the last regiments raised in the York County region.
So who was John Lau?

According to research by Civil War author Dennis W. Brandt, John Lau was born in Franklin Township in 1821. The Lau family (sometimes spelled “law” in some records) was an old line family of German heritage which was scattered throughout northwestern York County and southern Cumberland County. Several men by that surname fought in the Civil War. Most were farmers or tradesmen whose livelihoods were placed on hold during their term of service.
As an adult, John Lau was 5′ 9″ tall and had sandy brown hair and blue eyes. He married a girl named Maria on September 4, 1851 and they raised three sons – Jeremiah H. (born in 1853), Edward Augustus (born in 1855) and Martin L. (born in 1858). Lau was a cooper by trade.
As the Civil War entered its fourth year, Lau was still engaged in his business and taking care of his family needs. However, on August 24, he went to the recruiting station in Franklintown for the 209th Pennsylvania and volunteered for the Union army. Perhaps he was personally invited to join by prominent local businessman John Klugh, who was raising the company in which Lau enrolled.
Five days later, he was formally mustered into service and the companies were organized into a regiment, the 209th, in September at Camp Curtin in Harrisburg. Being one of the older men in his unit, he was elected as a sergeant in Company I. The new regiment spent most of the rest of the war as part of the 1st Brigade, 3rd Division, IX Corps of the Army of the Potomac, serving under future Pennsylvania governor John F. Harttranft. The Franklin Township boys fought in Northern Virginia at Hatcher’s Run, Nottoway and the Siege of Petersburg.
John Lau served until the end of the war, when the members of the 209th Pennsylvania whose terms of enlistment had expired were honorably discharged and mustered out on May 31, 1865, in Alexandria, Virginia. After being transported back to Harrisburg, Lau returned home to Franklin Township and his family.
The U.S. Census data from 1870 through 1890 indicated that Lau lived in Dillsburg in Carroll Township. In 1890, according to Dennis Brandt’s research, Lau was described as “a broken down man.” Perhaps exposure and the stress of military service may have played a role in his physical and emotional deterioration.
John Lau died on February 26, 1904 and is buried in the Franklin Church Cemetery, one of dozens of Civil War veterans whose headstones dot the old graveyard. Many of his descendants still live in York and Cumberland counties.
Dennis Brandt’s fine research has been shared with the public and his data on York County’s Civil War veterans can be found on-line for free at the website of the York County Heritage Trust. Why not look up your ancestors?